Picture this: You’ve reached the finals of a local tennis tournament. As you close in on victory, you hit a perfect lob, only to have your opponent leap 12 feet into the air and smash the ball directly into the centimeter-wide section of the court that you can’t quite reach.
No one would put up with, or even believe, a real opponent who will stop at nothing to beat you, even if it means discarding the laws of physics or demonstrating superhuman strength. Thus, it is rather unfortunate that video game players have often been expected to play against virtual opponents that seem to accomplish these feats on a regular basis. Sega’s Virtua Tennis franchise has made a name for itself by restoring the word “realistic” to tennis video games. Although the latest installment of the series, Virtua Tennis 3 for PSP, can sometimes seem a bit unrealistic in terms of off-court matters, the fluid gameplay and depth of strategy ultimately make this game a champion.
Virtua Tennis 3 features many of the world’s most popular tennis pros, including current champions like Andy Roddick and Roger Federer in the men’s game and Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport in the women’s. Although you can choose to play single exhibition matches or individual tournaments, the game’s primary attraction is the World Tour mode, in which you create your own character and then choose tournaments you want to play in as you try to achieve the #1 ranking. Different tournaments have different minimum ranking requirements to enter the tournament, with the more prestigious tournaments having a greater effect on your rank than the lesser ones. Singles, doubles, and mixed doubles events are included, along with a virtual “calendar” to help you decide what to play and when. As your skills improve, you will eventually qualify for the four Grand Slam tournaments and the year-end championship, although these events have all been given fake names like the “Australian Cup,” presumably for legal reasons.
Besides the tournaments, you will also have access to a variety of practice mini-games, such as collecting giant fruit to practice your footwork or fending off alien robots to improve your ground strokes. These games, along with the skill challenges at the Tennis Academy and practice matches with other players, enable you to build up your character’s strengths in a variety of categories as you gradually become a better player in an almost RPG- like fashion. Each tournament and practice event drains your character’s stamina, so you will also need to go home and “rest” periodically to avoid overstraining yourself and risking injury.
In addition to enhancing your rank, winning tournaments can also earn you new gear like rackets and shoes. However, the World Tour mode oddly does not include any monetary winnings, even though the individual tournament mode does. Overall, the prizes don’t exactly match real pro tennis--tournaments that earn you new sportswear in the virtual world would be more likely to earn players a new sports car in the real world. Your ability to check your own stats is quite limited, and there is also no way to see the list of titles you have previously won. These factors combine to make winning feel like less of achievement and detract from the game's trademark realism.
Back on court, however, everything is designed almost perfectly. Grass, clay, and hardcourt matches all exhibit fluid, realistic physics, and through the various training activities, you can learn to refine your serves, lobs, volleys, groundstrokes, and other shots to make them more effective. Although there is enough arcade-style button mashing to keep the game fun and easy to learn, it will take a lot more strategy and finesse than that to reach #1. The game also impressively recreates the playing style of each tennis pro, with traits like Lleyton Hewitt’s fast defense and Andy Roddick’s tremendous power being imitated accurately by the players’ digital counterparts.
Different types of matches will require you to win 2, 4, or 6 games to win a match, but unlike real tennis, you don’t have to win by at least two games, and there are no tiebreaks. You will also never play more than one set per match. (Scoring within each game follows the standard pattern of love, 15, 30, 40, game, including deuce.) Although this does give the game a slightly different feel from real tennis, it also keeps the game fast-paced and well suited to players with busy schedules—with a more standard scoring system, you would never be able to use your lunch break to win Wimbled—I mean, the “England Tennis Classic.”
The game’s loading delays can sometimes feel a bit long, but they are still on par with the loading times of other PSP games. Thankfully, there are no loading delays during a match. Virtua Tennis 3’s multiplayer mode enables up to four players to play together via ad-hoc WiFi connections.
Graphics & Sound
The players are well animated and bear a strong resemblance to the pros they are modeled after. The camera angles work smoothly and give the court an effective, three dimensional appearance. Although there aren’t many graphical effects that will give you a “Nice touch!” reaction (Why don’t the clay courts generate even a little bit of dust or stains?), overall the graphics get the job done and are enjoyable to watch.
The background music certainly won’t make you ask Sega to release a soundtrack album, but it is unobtrusive and varied enough to avoid being annoyingly repeatitive. The chair umpires are especially impressive, announcing the scores in the appropriate language for the location of a tournament; for example, fifteen-thirty in New York is quince-treinta in Barcelona. (Don’t worry if you don’t speak any foreign languages, since the on-screen display is always easy to understand.)
The crowd sound effects could be improved, though. Although they never make “surprised” or “impressed” noises at times when they shouldn’t, sometimes a point that would almost certainly impress real spectators is met only with silence.
Game, Set, Match
Although someone with no previous interest in tennis probably won’t want this game, even a casual tennis observer will find Virtua Tennis 3 easy to learn and even easier to like. Realistic gameplay and a compelling World Tour mode should be more than enough to free you from games whose physics models would baffle even Wile E. Coyote. Virtua Tennis has successfully defended its title as the leader of tennis video games.
Hints & Tips
-Once your rank is above 100 or so, don’t bother entering any Challenger or Advantage Series events. They will consume time and stamina but will not help your career, even if you win.
-Train extensively using the practice games, practice matches, and the Tennis Academy, and pay attention to their advice, especially about allowing as much “wind up” time as possible for your shots.
-As in many video games, watching shadows can be quite helpful. Keeping an eye on the shadow of the ball can help you predict where it will land.
-If you can hit a MAX serve in the corner of the service box, this will knock your opponent so far off balance that it will be almost impossible for him/her to recover.
Ratings (scale of 1 to 5):
The basics are donewell, but there aren’t many extrasor “eye candy” effects.
The chair umpire and sound effects arc done very well, but the crowd and background music are rather average.
Realistic physics and gameplay provide almost the same thrill as playing for real.
Although more stats and prizes would make the game even more addictive, developing your skills and career is still quite compelling.